52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 41: Drawing with a Camera Lucida
Back before the days of photography, society relied on the ‘artist’s impression’ to see people they would never meet or places they would never go. Artists used drawing aids such as mirrors, prisms, lenses, and camera obscuras (Latin for dark room, although strictly speaking the plural should be camerae obscurae) to fine-tune their craft. In 1808 William Wollaston invented and patented the camera lucida which became very popular, very quickly. The camera lucida (Latin for light room), is simply a brass stand with a prism and a few lenses.
The camera lucida is still being used today, albeit by a select few who can get their hands on one (see note below). While seeking inspiration for yet another blog, I happened to stumble upon (not literally of course) ‘Forty Etchings, from sketches made with the Camera Lucida, in North America, in 1827 and 1828’ by Captain Basil Hall in our collections. As I was in possession of a camera lucida (on loan from a friend) and was heading off on holidays to Canada, it seemed a bit like fate that I should have a go at this for our blog.
I ventured into this very tentatively, as one of the iconic ‘camera lucida’ stories comes from the pre-photographic days of William Henry Fox Talbot, who, on his honeymoon at Lake Como in Italy in 1833, was so miserable with his camera lucida that he decided to find a way to capture an image ‘by the agency of Light alone, without any aid whatever from the artist’s pencil’. Within a few years he had gone on to invent the photographic negative, just to compensate for the shortcomings of his own drawing.
The lucida’s prism is the heart of the instrument. The prism splits the image and allows the artist to see both their drawing paper and the subject simultaneously. Initially it can be a bit tricky to see as you are only seeing a small sliver of overlap between the two, split images. Some of my Special Collections colleagues wanted to have a go at this over the past few days while I had the lucida in the office. Strangely, people’s reactions were a bit mixed. The strain on the eyes and strange view can be a bit uncomfortable; two colleagues felt particularly unwell, noting headache and nausea after only a few minutes (the experiment was promptly stopped for my co-workers’ well-being). I for one felt fine and got used to the process rather quickly.
Captain Hall obviously had no issues mastering the use of the camera lucida. His book opens with an explanatory memorandum which states:
“This valuable instrument ought, perhaps, to be more generally used by travellers than it now is; for it enables a person of ordinary diligence to make correct outlines of many foreign scenes.”
It goes on “It should be recollected that in most cases, it is not striking or beautiful views that we require, but merely correct representations …” This is precisely what the lucida is meant to assist with: the portrayal of a realistic representation. Although the basic outline form can be drawn using the lucida, the details Hall drew in afterwards really added to the overall quality of the images.
Once you have the lucida set up, you cannot move it until you have finished your drawing as it is really difficult to get the exact same alignment again. Most people use a good sturdy tripod with a flat surface attached as their drawing surface. As I prefer to do things the difficult way, and wasn’t travelling with a tripod, I just used what was available, i.e. a tall stool in one case and a small box in another.
I thought I would start off easy with a simple lake/beach/pier/lighthouse view. I realised quickly that far-away objects are more difficult to get right because of the limited detail one can actually capture with this instrument. The learning curve may be steep, but improvement can be seen pretty quickly. I was heartened to read in the Memorandum:
”… while persons altogether ignorant of the subject, are disappointed to find, that for the first day or two they advance but little. … But they may rest assured, that a little perseverance will put all these difficulties to flight, after which, the wonderful economy of time and trouble will bar more than overpay the short labour of the instruction”.
So I persevered, and by the end of my third drawing I was less depressed about my new artistic venture.
As pleased as I was to see my improvements, it was clear to see how Hall’s years of practice made him much better at drawing log cabins than I was.
It felt a bit unnatural at times as I couldn’t adjust the paper and my arm had to stay out of the way. In retrospect it would probably be easier to draw from left to right. I hadn’t ventured into the realm of adding shading and features. But by the end of my fourth drawing I was getting much more comfortable with the process.
Overall I think it was a fun tool to use if you like drawing but don’t have the confidence. Others I have spoken with who regularly use the lucida say ‘you really must be able to draw first’. In many respects I think this is correct, but even if you are a person of “ordinary diligence” you should find this tool a wonderful aid and well worth a shot!
Special thanks to Richard Cynan Jones for the loan of his camera lucida and allowing me to take it on a trans-Atlantic journey, it peaked the (friendly) curiosity of many airport security staff along the way.
NB: Getting your own camera lucida can be pretty expensive as they are pretty highly sought after items on eBay often fetching in the region of £200. However, in doing some research for this blog I found an old KickStarter page by two art teachers in Chicago who make a modern rendition of the camera lucida and a wonderfully reasonable rate. I haven’t personally known anyone who has tried this for themselves, but their lucida was so successful it will be getting a second production-run over the next few months. Check them out here if you fancy giving it a try for yourself?!